Israelis and Judaism: What happens next?

Only 40 percent of Gutman SCenter Survey sample stated they observe religious tradition meticulously or to great extent.

July 12, 2012 09:42
MOSES TAUGHT that man can and must uplift and sanctify his material being.

Tanach 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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In the third and most recent Guttman Center Survey, “A Portrait of Israeli Jews,” done in 2009 and published in 2012, it was not uncommon to find that some who scored low on religious observance scored relatively high on religious belief. This included those who identified themselves as secular or non-religious.

For example only 40 percent of the total sample stated that they observe religious tradition meticulously or to a great extent. At the same time, 80% of all those surveyed believe in God; the same percentage believe that good deeds are rewarded; 77% believe that a higher power governs the world; 72% believe that prayer can help one escape a bad situation; 56% believe in the world to come and life after death; and 51% believe in the coming of the Messiah.

Here are some of my informal observations, which might serve as anecdotal samples of this seeming paradox: The Israeli who is quick to claim in parlor discussion that he or she is not only an atheist but a “complete and total, without doubt, pure” atheist. Upon further discussion, his confession of unbelief has more to do with opposition to religious coercion in civil life rather than any well-formed theological or philosophical worldviews.

The Israeli who is not religious in terms of observance but who, if pressed, will confess to a vague belief in the afterlife and an even stronger belief that God watches over us, especially if we call upon Him from time to time through personal prayer and in moments of great distress; most notably when awaiting the results of medical tests.

There is a saying that goes something like this: A Polish Jew doesn’t believe in God – but is scared to death of Him. I believe this refers equally to secular Israeli Jews.

I can see signs of religious trends emerging among those Israeli Jews who identify themselves as non-religious. These trends may not fit into the categories of “Orthodox,” “Humanistic,” “Conservative” or “Reform.”

The failure of socialist Zionist civil religion to meet the existential needs of many Israelis after the founding generation of the state may offer us a clue to the reasons for these emerging trends. Socialist Zionism, which was instrumental in founding the modern State of Israel through waves of pre-state immigration, especially the second and third aliyot, was largely composed of young idealists from Eastern Europe. Many of these socialist idealists followed the Marxist tradition, which meant an almost obligatory disdain for religion.


Socialist Zionism itself can be looked upon as almost a religion, with its own beliefs, rituals, saints, ideas of salvation and an “end of days” messianic future. The only thing differentiating it from a traditional religion is the absence of a belief in God and the supernatural, including the afterlife. Individual immortality was denied and instead replaced with the idea of the collective “afterlife” in the social body of the Jewish people returned to the Land of Israel.

If we look to popular culture, particularly songs made popular just before, during or immediately after wars, we can detect an interesting evolution from an emphasis on civil religion to an opening to God-based references.

This change is evident in the words of the composer of three of these songs, Naomi Shemer.

1967 – The Six Day War – “Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) – no reference to God. Holy places and symbols from the Bible are used in the context of the sacred history of a people rather than otherworldly transcendence.

1973 – The Yom Kippur War – “Let it Be” (Lu Yehi) – Although God is not directly mentioned, the song is in the form of a communal prayer of supplication.

1982 – The First Lebanon War – “For All These Things” (Al Kol Eleh) – God is mentioned directly in this song, which is written from the perspective of an individual praying to God.

I BELIEVE that these songs indicate a transition from the secular to the religious and a transition from the communal to the individual.

And, more strikingly, a movement from a somewhat impersonal God who relates to the nation as a whole to a personal God who is perceived as having a close relationship with individual people. This is a God who can be relevant to the non-religious in a way that perhaps a God of Halacha and strict observances cannot. This is a God who answers the prayers of the individual. If we look at popular Israeli music since 1967, we see God imagery increasingly entering the lyrics. These include visions of angelic beings and of the afterlife in the widely popular “How Shall I Bless Him” (Ma Avarech, 1968) .

So, where might the secular Israeli Jews be heading in the future? Civil religion will continue and will be accompanied by the persistence or even strengthening of personal eschatological and spiritual beliefs to answer existential questions. Secular Israelis may turn to a variety of religious options, including: Charismatic leaders. We already have an indication of this in the personalities of holy men like the Baba Sali and the Baba Baruch.

Charismatic leaders such as these have personalized faith for their followers as the incarnation of holiness into human form.

Messianic figures. Here we have the hassidic Chabad movement and its rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Some of his followers have proclaimed him to be the Messiah or even God incarnate, and not just a holy man. Since the concept of God incarnate in a human being is antithetical to Jewish belief, an important line has been crossed, at least by some, in terms of what might be considered non-heretical Jewish belief. If the possibility is entertained that God can be incarnated in the form a human being, then the theological argument shifts to a somewhat simpler one, i.e. not whether God incarnates Himself in humans but in which human he chooses to do so.

This brings us to another possible future direction for secular Israelis to take: The development of a cult which would later progress into a sect that would have an individual human being as its object of worship.

This individual could occupy any place on the spectrum from charismatic leader to national/personal messiah to the most theologically radical belief that he is God incarnate.

Messianic Jews. It remains to be seen if increasing numbers of Messianic Jews (followers of Jesus), the influx of former Soviet Union Christian immigrants, the large numbers of Christian pilgrims and foreign workers will have an effect on secular Israeli Jews.

The negative attitudes that Jews have had toward a Christian world outlook may now be attenuated due to the increasing perception that Islamists, rather than Christians, are the major existential threat to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. This is especially true in light of the important strategic alliance between Israel and American Evangelicals.

Although it seems unlikely that any significant number of Israeli Jews would become “Hebrew Christians,” the Christian religious motif of faith, belief, individual eternal salvation and imminent apocalyptic eschatology could be an outside influence on the formation of a Judaism for non-religious Israelis.

Feminist image religion: there is already a following of Rahel Imenu (Mother Rachel) that has gained some publicity, with reports of Israeli soldiers in combat having contacts with a woman who went before them to warn of dangers on the battlefield. Some identified this mysterious figure as a friendly Arab woman; others claimed that it was the spirit or incarnation of Rachel, the matriarch herself.

Eastern religion: There is increasing contact with the Hindu religion by way of young backpackers who make post-army service treks to the Far East, as well from the growing alliance and contact between Israel and India. These developments, too, may have an influence on secular Israeli Jews.

In sum, the development of a Jewish faith with a strong component of personal salvation seems to be becoming a possibility.

Attractive to non-religious or “secular” Israelis, this Jewish religious trend would be comprised of definite spiritual or eschatological beliefs but with a less intense emphasis on mandatory ritual observances and laws.

This could be described as a kind of Judaism light on personal observance while at the same time heavy on personal belief.

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